Monday, September 12, 2011

It's All in the Family: Kirschbaum's Bakery, Western Springs, IL

I have a thing for kitschy bakeries.

Okay, I have a thing for bakeries in general, but they get extra points for quaint character and unique touches - and serving tasty treats, of course! Regular readers of this blog also know that I have a thing for backstories; whether it's the development of a recipe, the origin of an ingredient or, as in this case, the history of an establishment, this enquiring mind always wants to know. As a result, I've done a lot of research in my time and have visited a lot of bakeries, but none satisfy these two loves quite like Kirschbaum's of Western Springs, IL.

This family-owned bakery was opened, in 1953, by Lester and Cele Kirschbaum (ovens in the current location started churning out delicious pastries and delectable cookies in 1954) and has been handed down through generations of Kirschbaums for the past half-century. It's an old-fashioned family establishment, and it shows - in the best way possible. A bright yellow exterior with stylized red letters (they'd be called retro these days, but these are the originals!) welcomes you cheerfully into a time capsule of an interior. Long glass counters are filled to the brim with good old-fashioned pastries, tea cookies, pies, coffee-cakes and, for an ethnic touch, kolacky.

The past 50 years haven't left the shop entirely untouched - they have a website and now sell cake balls, for example - but my Mum assures me that very little has changed. You see, Kirshbaum's isn't just any bakery. It isn't even just any family bakery - it's the bakery my Mum grew up with. She ate coffee cakes purchased at Kirschbaum's as a child, and worked at a drugstore down the street as a teen. When she married my father in 1972, Kirschbaum's supplied their wedding cake. For this reason, this little bakery was an important destination during our recent visit to Illinois.

In town for the week to visit my Grandma and help my sister move, we made time for a couple of tasty trips down memory lane. On our first visit, we brought back an incredibly moist and delicious Sour Cream Coffee Cake and a few kolacky for Grandma to try. Their coffee cakes are legendary confections, plump with filling, topped with buttery crumb topping, and generously glazed, but the real treat was a Chocolate Eclair. Split four ways, we each got only a mouthful, but that mouthful was a revelation! A light choux pastry hid a creamy custard center, perfectly cool and smelling richly of fresh dairy and a hint of egg (I've always loved my custards slightly eggy so this was perfect!). A thin slick of glossy chocolate icing topped the treat and gave it the perfect amount of sweetness.

On our second trip, we were offered a taste of Kirshbaum's famous tea cookies - thick, buttery cookies covered in a variety of pretty icings and sprinkles - but for good Czech girls, like my sisters and me, it doesn't get much better than poppyseed coffee cake. My sister picked out a particularly gooey one and Mum selected a few other dainties - a cannoli, a Napoleon, and some more kolacky - to sample. I'm sure the other treats were delicious, but it was all about the poppyseed pastry for me. I love the slightly-nutty, slightly-sweet richness of poppyseed filling (the caviar of desserts!) and Kirschbaum's, located in the heart of what was once a very German/Eastern European area, really knows their poppyseed!

The pastries were great - the most moist and fresh I've tasted in a long time - but the stories were undoubtedly the best part of our visit to Kirschbaum's. It was fun to listen to Mum and Grandma reminisce, their hands sticky-sweet with long-remembered flavors, and it struck me just how often our memories are anchored to a place, a smell, a taste. Even if Kirschbaum's isn't a nostalgic destination for you, it's a worthwhile one. The quality of their baked goods speaks for itself, as it has for the past 50 years!

Kirschbaum's Bakery on Urbanspoon


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